Former Withers partner Mark Harper made his mark in the family arena back in 2007, acting on the largest-ever settlement in the family courts as well as the divorce of Formula One tycoon Bernie Ecclestone. But since then, it’s all been Russian and relocation cases.
The Ecclestone case was in fact just as dramatic behind closed doors as it was in the media, with the Formula One tycoon turning away from Withers post 2007 in favour of new counsel.
“This is one of the issues of family law, as clients don’t always tell you what’s going on in the background,” says Harper. “You’re dealing with high-profile and wealthy clients who may have other advisers and often they’re told they have to pursue that course of action.”
Harper quit Withers during 2014 after 15 years with the firm. He left for the much smaller Hughes Fowler Carruthers (HFC), a divorce specialist firm made up of six partners. “HFC is a smaller firm, so I’m spending less time on management and doing more client work,” says Harper.
But at both Withers and HFC, an increasing number of Harper’s clients come from Russia after many people started moving to London in 2005/06. As a result, Harper has had to stay up-to-date with Russia’s “very different” legal system, so that he can advise couples seeking a divorce in London, as well as ensure international pre-nuptial agreements work in both jurisdictions.
“More Russians are getting divorced in London now, but this was not so common prior to 2005/06,” he says. “One spouse needs to be living here for you to have the English power to grant a divorce.”
Harper has made a point of acting both for oligarchs and their wives, describing it as “healthy” to act for both sides as it keeps a lawyer’s skillset sharp. “You have to know how the other party is going to react,” he explains.
In his last year at Withers, he also represented a network of offshore companies in the 2013 case M v M. In the case, the companies held a variety of marital assets and the court had to decide whether the husband had intended to retain the beneficial interest in the properties or if the companies themselves were the true owners.
“This was the first case after the Supreme Court decision in Prest v Petrodel Resources on whether you can lift the corporate veil and disregard the fact that a company owns an asset,” says Harper. “The offshore companies owned UK real estate, which the wife alleged belonged to the husband, and so she applied for financial relief under the Matrimonial and Family Proceedings Act.”
In the end, the court found the husband had intended to own the properties and the judge ruled against Withers, ordering the properties to be transferred to the wife. Harper observes that “there has been a big rise in these cases” in which wives are seeking more money in the local court provided that the links to England are there.
The area of law surrounding children and relocation after divorce is also continuing to be of interest for Harper. In 2011, he worked on K (Children), which has been described as a key case on the legal implications of international relocation.
“A Canadian couple had moved here for work,” he says. “We acted for the father, who had arranged to spend time with his children in a shared-care arrangement. This was for five nights a fortnight, which is higher than is normally allowed.”
As a result, the court ruled it was wrong for the mother to return to her home country, correcting a misunderstanding in a previous case that the child should come first. The case has since paved the way for other important decisions in how to deal with internal relocation cases.
And the firsts just keep on coming for Harper, who has also been involved in one of the initial cases dealing with the Human Fertilisation Act. The case, which he describes as “an interesting one to be involved in”, concerns children conceived using a man’s sperm but born to women in a civil partnership. The matter ultimately resulted in the debate of several key issues, including the legal parenthood of the child, as well as the lack of obligation of the father to pay child maintenance.
With a vast array of family cases under his belt, Harper was elected European Chapter President of the International Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers in 2014. However, it is a role he is set to step down from after the group’s conference in May, inevitably freeing him up to do more client work in an exceptionally busy area.
Harper has been a partner at Withers since 1999, but made his name in family law when he acted for John Charman on his landmark divorce. In May 2007, the Charman divorce set the benchmark at £48m for the largest settlement ever reached in the Family Courts. Now Harper has found himself instructed by Formula One tycoon Bernie Ecclestone concerning his impending divorce from Slavica Ecclestone. At this rate Harper may well end up as the Fiona Shackleton of 2009.
The Lawyer Hot 100 2008